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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Florentine Opera's Baroque Magic of a Bygone Age

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The operas of the Baroque period (1600-1759) were once a hard sell for music lovers accustomed to the greater realism and stronger story lines of later classic and romantic opera. Yet the beguiling appeal of the best Baroque operas can't be dismissed as charming relics of a world gone by. The treasures of the Baroque period speak to a tradition of guileless harmonies and delicate textures capturing an imaginary world of mythical gods and goddesses with a beauty that catches the listener unawares while marveling at a sense of quiet transcendence.

Probably the most famous example is Henry Purcell's often-performed, 54-minute Dido and Aeneas (1688). Although recitative was the convention of the time for describing events, Purcell introduces arias to heighten the story of Queen Dido of Carthage and her doomed marriage to Trojan leader Aeneas. Dido's Lament (“When I am laid in earth”) is often used in movie and TV scores. The rollicking first sailor's aria (“Take a boozy short leave of your nymph”) adds a touch of ribald charm.

John Blow's only surviving stage work, Venus and Adonis (1683), seems an appropriate but curiously ironic bedfellow alongside Dido in the forthcoming Florentine Opera program. Some consider Venus to be a semi-opera, while others call it a masque. It was composed for the court of Charles II and contains no arias. But it's the earliest known English opera and greatly influenced Dido and Aeneas. Both deal with tragic mythical romances based on early legendary sources, although Venus and Adonis has the added distinction of deriving from the famous Shakespearean poem. Venus enjoys an eyebrow-raising reputation as “coarse” due to scenes involving Cupid, a role sometimes performed by Charles II's illegitimate daughter.

According to the Florentine Opera's general director, William Florescu, “Baroque opera should be performed and staged with the same vitality as the more traditional works—passages in Verdi are no less declamatory than the emotions expressed by Venus or Dido.” Yet his Dido and Aeneas and Venus and Adonis will be performed at the smaller Vogel Hall (at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts) to approximate the more intimate experience of 17th-century Baroque audiences. The works will be performed May 13-22 under the stage direction of Florescu. Patricia Risley (who appeared in Elmer Gantry) will portray Dido. Soprano Greer Davis and baritone Craig Verm (from the Florentine's Magic Flute) will return as Venus and Adonis.